The Virginia House of Delegates banned school mask mandates Monday, handing a victory to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin after his effort to impose the ban by executive order stalled in court.
The measure already passed the Senate. Youngkin's office has indicated he will sign it and plans to attach an emergency clause letting it take effect immediately. If he does, the bill will go back to the legislature, where it will require a majority vote from each chamber, which could take just a matter of days.
Without the emergency clause, the bill wouldn't take effect until July 1.
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In a statement, Youngkin called passage “a significant step" that “will give parents a choice regarding their child’s health, education, upbringing, and care.”
Youngkin won election in November on a campaign platform that emphasized parental choice in education. On his first day in office last month, he signed an executive order ending a statewide mask mandate in schools enacted by his predecessor, Democrat Ralph Northam.
Youngkin's order also sought to bar local school systems from imposing mask mandates on their own, but it got bogged down in legal challenges. Local school boards sued, saying it usurps their authority, and an Arlington County judge issued a temporary injunction barring the order from taking effect.
Moderate Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen then joined with Republicans to pass legislation giving parents the final decision on whether their children wear masks to school. Petersen and two other Democrats joined with Republicans to push the legislation through the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow 21-19 advantage.
On Monday, the House passed the bill on a 52-48 vote, matching the 52-48 advantage Republicans hold there.
The House rejected several amendments proposed by Democrats, including one from Del. Marcus Simon that would have let the mask provision expire in 2023.
“We don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know what variants are coming,” Simon said. “Let’s revisit this issue next year, maybe in less politically heated circumstances, maybe without this super urgent rush to give the governor a political win.”
Republicans, though, said the mask mandates have thwarted learning. They said communication is muffled and children lose the ability to learn from facial expressions.
“Students are uncomfortable, unable to discern emotions, hear words and communicate clearly. This poses clear challenges to social interaction and mental health,” said Republican Del. Amanda Batten.
Several states across the country have moved in recent days to end school mask mandates, including states controlled by Democrats, including New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware.